HCLG Committee publishes report on progress on English devolution

Posted on 21/10/2021 by Ed Hammond.

On 1 October, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee of the House of Commons published its long-awaited report on the progress of English devolution (long-awaited because the inquiry began in July 2019, and was then delayed first by the General Election and then by the pandemic).

The report is generally positive about the prospects for further devolution in England, and is wide-ranging in the topics it covers. It does also have some interesting things to say about governance and scrutiny, which are what this post focuses on. We’ll consider producing something more general reflecting on overall devolution progress when the Government publishes its response at the beginning of December, which may or may not coincide with the publication of the “levelling up” White Paper.

First, structures overall. The Committee dwells on whether the adoption by other authorities of a model similar to that of the London Assembly is credible for combined authorities. Some thought so – some not. We suggested that one possible model could be a form of direct election for scrutineers; we also highlighted our ideas for the establishment of local Public Accounts Committees – you can read about our proposal here. Both could provide a more credible, high profile focus for holding the Mayor and CA to account. Others are cooler on the idea though. It feels unlikely that we will see this kind of major structural change, although the report’s engagement with it could lead to us getting a clearer view on this point from Government. MPs conclude that there is no consensus on the optimum structure – but that funding and resourcing to enable effective scrutiny should be provided.

Secondly, quoracy. We are really pleased to see the Committee dwell on quoracy, as a continuing headache for combined authority scrutiny. MPs recommend a reduction in members required to be present for a meeting to be quorate, from two-thirds to half.

Thirdly, data. MPs suggest that more data is needed for effective scrutiny, and that national partners should work together to put necessary arrangements in place.

Positively, the Committee also dwelt on the culture and scrutiny – highlighting the importance of culture and behaviours and on the “convening power” of scrutiny at this level. In doing so they highlighted what we have pointed out for some time – that scrutiny in combined authorities needs to look and feel quite different to scrutiny in local authorities.

In short, there is nothing here that will surprise scrutiny practitioners operating in the combined authority space. But it is reassuring to see concerns which have been expressed around the remit, powers, resourcing and arrangements for CA scrutiny being echoed on a national stage, and in a forum to which Government is obliged to respond.

We know that a number of combined authorities are, right now, reviewing and evaluating their governance arrangements. The report goes into detail on a wider range of governance matters, and it would definitely make sense to have some reflective conversations about what MPs’ findings might mean for the role of CA members, and arrangements for CA decision-making more generally.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.